Fulfilling the law

Last Sunday’s sermon text was Matthew 5:17-20.

Here’s an exercise for you: read the whole rest of the Sermon on the Mount, and then fill in the blank with the word you think Jesus is most likely to have used here: “I have not come to abolish the law, but to _________ it.”

Affirm? Maintain? Strengthen? Proclaim? Restore? Obey?

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished….”

If you think about it, “fulfill” is a really strange word to use when talking about the law. You can talk about fulfilling a promise, or fulfilling a prophecy, or even fulfilling a requirement or an obligation. But what would it even mean to fulfill a law?

Promises, prophecies, requirements, and obligations all explicitly look ahead to a future action or event. And they’re all designed to be made obsolete; once a requirement or a promise or an obligation has been fulfilled, it’s no longer in force.

Traffic laws, for example, say to stop when the stoplight is red. I know what it means to obey that law, but what could it possibly mean to fulfill that law? How could I satisfy that law so thoroughly that it was no longer in force? The question hardly makes sense.

It’s also interesting that Jesus contrasts fulfilling the law with abolishing it — interesting, because both verbs imply that the law would be made obsolete! The difference is that fulfilling something makes it obsolete in a way consistent with its goals or intentions.

Also note that Jesus doesn’t quite say “not the smallest letter will disappear from the Law.” Instead, he says “not the smallest letter will disappear from the Law — until everything is accomplished.

Whatever else you think about this, it’s an unusual turn of phrase, and a pretty dramatic reinterpretation of what the law is and how it might work.

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